Facilities Management (Managing Assets)

What is FM About?

I’m occasionally surprised by some “old-time” facility management employees when they to tell me what they think they do at the college campus. “I work on [insert system or component name here]” is a rather average, if not banal, response. Even more perplexing, their managers might tell me that they have X employees who work on ABC systems in Y buildings. To me, that is a depressing understatement of why they are on the payroll.

What’s the Point?

These people are missing the point. We are in the business of doing whatever is necessary and figuring out how to do it in order to allow building users do what they’re supposed to do and want to be doing—and doing it successfully!

Everything we plan, check, and do supports our stakeholders’ activities and experiences—or should. The functions we perform: Facilitate their ability to communicate, electronically or otherwise; provide an environment that allows us to mitigate—no—eliminate the risk that they’re going to be exposed to disease, illness, injury or death; make it possible for all to work in an environment that does not distract them with unwanted vibrations, noises, sounds or distractions; provide appropriate and healthy lighting (that is also energy efficient); create physical space that is accessible, comfortable, and as convenient as circumstances allow; and anticipate future programmatic needs and consequential budgetary requirements.

This preceding, nonexclusive list of accountabilities is not detailed in order of presumed priority. They can’t be, as they are inextricably intertwined, demanding equal attention.

Institutional Knowledge

Presumably, we have attended enough professional conferences that we should be solidly entrenched in these corollaries to job descriptions defining our senior leadership responsibilities. This leads me to wonder: Why do those archaic attitudes survive among some, if not too many, of our front-line employees and their immediate managers? What’s more troubling to me is that employees with notably less tenure seem to adopt this attitude rather quickly.

After some soul-searching, meditation and a slight bit of “Dimmesdalian” introspection, I have come up with a hypothesis: It is the dark side of institutional knowledge!

Much has been written about the value of institutional knowledge—including by me. There are certain benefits associated with it. We consider ourselves fortunate if we have on our staff “wellaged” employees who bring institutional knowledge to the workplace. They know the buildings, they know the systems, and they often know the people. With them on our staff, who needs current as-builts? Our CAD files or BIM representations might not have the degree of accuracy (this is another topic for discussion) that an old-timer could bring to the table. The chronology of why things are as they are is frequently lost as our senior team members leave us. It is certainly worth whatever effort and investment it takes to transfer and formalize this type of knowledge long before we risk losing them.

How does this relate to my “dark side” comment, made above?

It is clear to me that, just as old-timers bring forward “good” knowledge, they could just as easily perpetuate less desirable values and attitudes. Sometimes, it doesn’t take very long. For instance, have you ever hired a fresh journeyman (you name the trade) who was gung-ho when first hired, but then settled into the passive or even hostile attitude already pervasive in that work unit?

It is easy to understand why the boiler mechanics who spend all their time in the bowels of a boiler plant see their mission as making sure the plant is functioning as required, while remaining relatively oblivious to the conditions elsewhere on the campus. That in itself is something we should deal with by involving them in “above-ground” planning activities and celebrations. One huge mistake I made, looking back, was not encouraging our maintenance dispatcher to become familiar with the campus. After 20 years, all she knew and cared about was her own operation (which she did very well) without much awareness of how what she did, or didn’t do, affected campus operations and perceptions. Her coworkers in the same office quickly, after being hired, adopted the same attitude.

We have an opportunity, every day of every week, to involve employees at all levels in activities that could form in them a feeling of belonging to and being part of the campus environment that they help create. What a great way to tap/document their institutional knowledge!

This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Pete van der Have is a retired facilities management professional and is currently teaching university-level FM classes as well as doing independent consulting. He can be reached at petevanderhave@msn.com.

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Has interest in sustainability initiatives—from alternative energy and water conservation to “green” landscaping, recycling, fossil-fuel divestment, local sourcing, and more—waned on your campus?


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